HL Deb 07 July 2000 vol 614 cc1752-68

1.37 p.m.

Lord Greaves rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether implementation of the arrangements for the dispersal and support of asylum seekers is satisfactory.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this Question has been tabled in order to bring to the attention of noble Lords what is happening as regards the implementation of the Asylum Support Regulations 2000 and the arrangements for the dispersal of asylum seekers by the National Asylum Support Service (NASS). It is my contention that a great deal of unsatisfactory practice is taking place. I believe that the Government should take this into account and take action on it.

The last occasion that noble Lords discussed this matter in detail was in a debate on the regulations initiated by my noble friend Lord Dholakia on 20th April. I do not wish to revisit the ground covered in that debate. Instead, I suggest that, in spite of the great degree of unhappiness expressed about the regulations, what we are dealing with now is the regulations as they are being applied in practice. I contend that the regulations are not being observed properly and people are therefore suffering.

Over 3,000 dispersals have taken place so far under the new system, which was implemented on 3rd April. Those dispersals have been undertaken by NASS. Reports have been received from all around the country that the system is not providing vulnerable asylum seekers with the safe, secure and supportive provision which, not only do they need, but to which they are entitled under the law and under the regulations which have been approved. They are being denied help and services. Furthermore, in many places, they are also being subjected to intimidation and harassment.

A great deal of evidence is being amassed by various bodies, such as the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, the Refugee Council, local authorities and the media. I have collected quite a lot of evidence from my own contacts around the country and from my own experience. I ask the Government to take this matter seriously and to attempt to do something about it.

My involvement with this issue began in my own area of Pendle, in Lancashire. The first that anyone knew of the fact that NASS was sending anyone to our area was when a young man from a North African country who could not speak any English presented himself at the check-out at Morrison's with his vouchers and managed to make it understood that he wanted English lessons. The person on the check-out had the good sense to refer him to the local FE college. Inquiries that were then made indicated that about 20 people had already been dispersed to Nelson, and there are now about 120 reinforcements.

These are small towns with fairly closely knit communities. There are a large number of people who are used to tackling problems, so people cannot be dispersed to areas such as ours without it being widely known and without an attempt being made to provide them with help, support and assistance. So the initial major area of concern was the question of secrecy. Whenever anyone asked questions, there was a blanket silence, a wall of secrecy.

We discovered that an organisation called the "Burnley and Pendle Housing Agency" was busy trawling for empty houses among house owners in the area and offering them perhaps £40 a week for five years if they would allow the housing agency to take a tenancy. It then become clear that the agency consisted of one young man in his early 20s who was behaving in a entrepreneurial manner in regard to the provision of accommodation. He had managed by some means or other to obtain a contract with Clearsprings (Management) Ltd, one of the national companies engaged by NASS. We then discovered that a landlord who specialises in what might be called low quality housing in Brierfield had a similar contract with Adelphi Hotels Ltd.

But there was still a huge blanket of secrecy over everything. In particular, local authorities were being kept in the dark. Local groups were having to find out by accident who the people were and where they were living. The local college, which was providing English classes, was having to arrange them by word of mouth. Whenever people asked, "Why cannot somebody locally be told what is going on, so that they can engage the resources of the community to help?", they were told, "No, it's against the Data Protection Act". They were then told that the information was covered by the Official Secrets Act. Even people offering their houses are made to sign documents promising never to tell anyone that the conversations had taken place or that anything was going on—on pain, it seems, of being locked up in the Tower! They were told that the matter was covered by considerations of commercial confidentiality. Fourthly—at which I pricked up my ears—people were told that nothing could be said until the matter had been raised in Parliament.

Like many other communities around the country, we have experience of dealing with Vietnamese boat people, of the dispersal of Kosovans 12 months ago, and of many other cases. We have a history of welcoming such people, and a history of providing help and support. The way in which this was done, with a great wall of silence, was guaranteed to start the local press sniffing, smelling a rat and creating difficulties among members of the local community, who are rightly asking, "Who are these people who have come to live in our street?"—and no one will give them any information.

There is a great willingness around the country to help, particularly among local authorities. The Chester Chronicle for Friday, 30th June, reported the Conservative county councillor, Neil Fitton, as saying, Cheshire responded magnificently to the plight of the Kosovans and we would like to repeat that response for people who have been similarly oppressed".

However, on Wednesday this week in another place, the Minister, Barbara Roche, said: NASS works closely with local authorities, up and down the country, to ensure that dispersal … is a reality, and that it provides an appropriate environment for asylum seekers".—[Official Report, Commons, 5/7/00; co1.106WH.]

That is not true. Indeed, on Tuesday (4th July) the Lancashire Evening Telegraph reported as follows: 15 asylum seekers have arrived in Burnley but the council doesn't know who they are or where they are living. Council Labour leader Stuart Caddy slammed as appalling and unacceptable the Government's refusal to provide information … denying the local authority the chance to provide help and guidance".

Throughout the country, wherever you ask—from Plymouth to Leicester, Derby, Leeds, Liverpool, northeast Lancashire or anywhere else—it is a common complaint by local authorities that they are not being allowed the information that they need in order to help with this problem.

The second main area of concern is over the service that is provided by local providers. NASS has contracts with about a dozen national providers and they contract with local landlords and local providers. The local providers are simply not giving the service for which they are paid.

The Model Contract for the Provision of Accommodation and Related Services for Asylum Seekers (Private Sector Providers), which I was able to consult in the Library, makes it clear that a whole series of support services are supposed to be provided for asylum seekers. But the experience of people all over the country is that that is not happening.

There is meant to be a one-stop service, which, as the document states, should among things, provide a focal point for local voluntary and community effort within the cluster groups".

The "cluster group" where I live is Nelson. Our nearest one-stop service is in Manchester, over 30 miles away. How on earth can that service provide what is necessary? How on earth can people who receive only £10 a week afford to go to Manchester to consult the one-stop service?

The document lists a whole series of services that providers should make available. Without going into detail, the provisions are excellent: there should be full-time, trained staff; there should be police checks where there is contact with children under 18, and so on. I do not believe that any of that is being done by the service providers that I know about in many different areas.

It is stated that interpreters should be available on arrival; that there should be induction to premises; that all necessary safety and operating instructions should be provided; as should a local map; and that providers should facilitate registration with GPs, dentists and local schools. That is not happening according to the information that I have from the length and breadth of the land. All that is happening is that people are turning up once a week to obtain the signatures of the "service users", as the asylum seekers are called, on a piece of paper so that they can send it off and get their money.

It is further stated that details of local solicitors and registration advisers should be available. There is a huge problem over the provision of proper and adequate legal advice to asylum seekers. I was talking to two people only a few days ago. One had a local solicitor who had been signed up for the scheme by the Government. Such people are very competent solicitors, but they do not have a clue about asylum law. People have been seen opening up the books, looking up the regulations, and so on, while interviewing an asylum seeker. They are people who have no experience whatsoever in this field—and why should they have? On the other hand, I spoke to another asylum seeker two days ago who seemed to have an excellent lawyer and to be receiving excellent advice. Unfortunately, that firm of solicitors is 300 miles away in Ramsgate; they are the people with whom the asylum seeker was put in touch on arrival. The amount of legal advice that is available, its quality, and access to such advice are huge problems. No travel allowance is provided for people who may need to see lawyers many miles away. We talk about people appealing and receiving proper legal advice, but I do not believe that many are receiving anything like the advice to which they are entitled.

The document also states that people should be given contact numbers to phone, that there should be complaints procedures in place, that written material should be provided in an appropriate language, and that occupancy agreements should be in the language understood by the service user. In my experience, none of that is happening.

I can tell noble Lords lots of horror stories but I quote just one involving a traumatised teenage girl from another North African country. Her home was in a village in a war zone which had been recently bombed. She was placed alone in a house without any contacts or knowing anybody. In the middle of the night she awoke with severe stomach pains. The only people she knew were others who had arrived with her on the same bus. They happened to live across the road. She managed to wake them and, somehow, they took her to the casualty department of the local hospital. Two days elapsed before the hospital discovered who she was and why she was there. The hospital only discovered her identity when a teacher in a local FE college was told in an English class that a girl had been taken to hospital. She rang the hospital and spoke to the ward sister, who said, "Thank goodness someone has rung. We have no idea who this girl is". Such events occur because the Government rely on private sector providers at local level to provide a whole range of services of which they have no experience and understanding; and some of them have no intention of providing these facilities.

At the other extreme, people are supposed to be provided with cutlery and crockery. In Nelson it was discovered that most of these people did not have tin-openers. The local support group had a whip round to provide tin-openers.

The vouchers give rise to huge problems. People must have a document to obtain the vouchers and then claim the vouchers. Vouchers appear in Burnley but the documents are sent to Manchester, or vice versa. There is huge confusion and a great many people have to wait weeks and weeks before they receive the vouchers that they are meant to have.

There is one local problem that I have already raised and will continue to raise until it is dealt with. The NASS told me, helpfully, that post offices where vouchers could be obtained should not be more than three miles away. The fact is that Nelson is well over four miles from Burnley. A return on the bus costs £1.30. One has a voucher for goods and also a voucher that can be cashed for £10. To get that £10 one must spend £1.30 return on the bus. All of this is being done on the basis of self-assessment. The service provider simply ticks a list of boxes to say that it is doing them and it is paid the money.

What is NASS doing to check it? My honourable friend in another place Simon Hughes has discovered this week from a Question for Written Answer that there are 433 staff employed by NASS: 423 in Croydon and one in each region. Therefore, there are 423 staff in Croydon and one who has just started work in the North West to check up on all these people. I suggest that that balance is wrong.

Around the country there are far worse stories than have occurred in Nelson. I highlight just one. In Chapeltown, Leeds, Angel Group Ltd has two hostels: Angel House and Angel Hall. There have been complaints of cramped accommodation, intimidation and threats by staff and poor food. That accommodation was visited by some BBC journalists this week. While they were there drug dealers were dealing in heroine outside during the day and a young lady was offering her services on the opposite corner. Recently, a shotgun has been fired into those premises. One of the asylum seekers has been stabbed. That area is totally unsatisfactory to house these people, yet it happens because it is organised by people purely on the basis of housing. People are asked whether they have accommodation. If they do they are allowed to provide it regardless of other factors.

I could also talk about racist attacks around the country which the Refugee Council is monitoring. Perhaps the Minister will follow up that matter. There is a good deal of profiteering going on. The going rate for accommodation in the private sector is about £110 per week per asylum seeker. In Nelson three or four asylum seekers are housed in small two up and two down terraced houses which have separate rooms and communal kitchen and bathroom facilities. Those houses are rented to local providers for £40 per week. Therefore, perhaps £300 to £400 is being shared between the national providers and local agents. If one deducts the £40 per week for the cost of the accommodation and bears in mind that the services being provided are the absolute minimum, a good profit is being made by the companies engaged by the Home Office and NASS.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord for interrupting him. I know that he feels passionately about these important matters, but speeches in this debate are limited to 15 minutes and already one noble Lord wants to speak in the gap. Perhaps the noble Lord will wind up his speech.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, I am content not to make a contribution if the noble Lord wishes to speak for another four minutes.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, I shall wind up. I ask the Government to give this matter serious consideration. Please accept that there is a problem and that local authorities and the consortia may be able to do it better than private landlords who are engaged for this purpose. I also ask the Government genuinely to cooperate with local people and local councils which want to help and put more NASS staff in the field to monitor what is going on.

1.55 p.m.

Baroness Howells of St Davids

My Lords, I thank the, noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for bringing this matter to the attention of the House. I want to speak only about those persons who genuinely come within the United Nations Convention on Refugees and Asylum Seekers 1951, not those who are accused of being bogus or economic refugees. I also want to focus on the Race Relations Act 1976 and the role of local authorities in the dispersal and support of asylum seekers under that Act. Section 71 of the 1976 Act imposes on local authorities the duty, to make appropriate arrangements with a view to securing that their various functions arecarried out with due regard to the need —

  1. (a) to eliminate unlawful … discrimination:
  2. (b) to promote equality of opportunity, and good relations, between persons of different racial groups".
Unfortunately, when asylum seekers are dispersed local authorities do not appear to pay attention to their duties under Section 71. We are all aware of asylum seekers in the care of London boroughs who are shipped out to so-called "cluster" areas. Your Lordships may be aware of asylum seekers in the care of London boroughs, such as Westminster City Council, who are dispersed to seaside towns on the east coast; for example, Great Yarmouth. Other local authorities are also doing this. Westminster is not alone in the shift.

Noble Lords may also be aware of many reports of alleged discrimination on racial grounds and racial harassment suffered by those who seek asylum in cluster areas. Sometimes these acts are alleged to have been committed by the hotel or bed-and-breakfast owners who receive these asylum seekers hundreds of miles away from the local authority that has contracted out responsibility for them. Sometimes the services on the ground in these cluster areas are inadequate, or are not even put in place by the dispersing authority.

This begs the question: how can a local authority fulfil its Section 71 duties when the asylum seekers for whom it has responsibility are 200 miles away? Is it paying any attention to Section 71 in the first place? The answer is that some local authorities which disperse asylum seekers usually do so without ever paying due regard to Section 71. That provision appears to have no meaning when it comes to asylum seekers. The main reason why this failure occurs is because Section 71 is without any effective means of enforcement and thus has had limited, and possibly uneven, impact. Some local authorities ignore this duty because no consequences flow from their failure to comply with it; others do not even appear to be aware of their duties under Section 71, or they have due regard to the provision but decide that it is inappropriate to make such arrangements.

Some local authorities may not even believe that Section 71 has anything to do with asylum seekers, a large number of whom are members of the Roma community and who arrive in the UK fearing persecution in the Czech or Slovak Republics, or others, such as refugees from the former Yugoslavia, who are white.

Some local authorities associate Section 71 with providing services to residents who are black and Asian only. Section 71 should be observed by local authorities with regard to asylum seekers, whether they are white, black or Asian. The problem is that many local authorities are simply not doing so. Local authorities should ensure that their dispersal and support arrangements are in place.

I recognise that the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill will replace the current Section 71 with a positive statutory duty on all public authorities to promote racial equality. I urge that this new duty be clear and unambiguous. Local authorities need to know the nature of their duties if that duty is to have any effect. I trust that the Minister will give much thought to this matter. While we await the passage of the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill, I hope that the Government will ensure that local authorities fulfil their duty.

Do the dispersal arrangements—they are concerned solely with housing—adequately ensure that asylum seekers have access to GP services? There is strong anecdotal evidence, usually from lawyers advising asylum seekers, that they have great difficulty getting on to GP lists. When asylum seekers are sent to areas from which populations have moved, there is a strong likelihood that there are insufficient numbers of GPs to meet the ordinary health needs of asylum seekers.

Similar questions could be asked about education. At the beginning of the school year in September 1999, there were more than 400 asylum-seeker children in Kent for whom there were no school places. Eventually they were found places, but not at local schools. They were "bussed" to a school or an army base. No integration with local children in the playground was possible.

There are real issues about stigmatisation and the creation of a visible social underclass. Yesterday someone from Kent, referring to eastern European (white) asylum seekers, said, "You can recognise them; they look different; they wear different clothes; they walk differently". The Refugee Council has reports of the humiliation of asylum seekers trying to use vouchers. We received somewhat old stories in our briefing last year on the Immigration and Asylum Bill.

There are also issues about what is happening to the existing local population. Not only is racism and xenophobia being whipped up but, similarly, compassion is being wiped out. Apparently, in Dover the local radio station could find no one who spoke with regret or sadness about the death of 58 Chinese men and women asylum seekers. They did not care.

Ten years ago a young woman came to Britain as an asylum seeker. Today she is one of the leading scientists with the Wellcome Foundation. She has devoted her training and time in Britain to studying asthma which we know affects our population. Today's asylum seekers may be tomorrow's geniuses.

2.3 p.m.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, I was disturbed to listen to the opening speech of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. It is important to integrate these asylum seekers as they disperse across the country. In Kent some communities engage with asylum seekers. They welcome them, get to know them and support them. That integration works. It needs to be introduced. It cannot work if there is no information and no one knows who the asylum seekers are. The noble Baroness, Lady Howells, made the same point. Compassion can be wiped out if there is no active effort to involve local communities with asylum seekers—in playing football, with help with writing and in other minor ways. I speak as a volunteer with Kosovan asylum seekers. It can be a great pleasure to work with them. If we do not know them, they may appear frightening. If they are our football partners, we can get along with them.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, spoke of a traumatised lass. I met a young woman from Sierra Leone whose sister had been murdered by soldiers. They had played cat-and-mouse with her before killing her. She described this appalling experience to me in floods of tears. Sitting with this young woman was an awful experience, yet these people are sent out unsupported into an unknown world. We must do more to support them.

There is a housing crisis in London and the South East. It is hard to house asylum seekers. Working as a volunteer in a hostel in Soho each week, I see young asylum seekers who are in cramped conditions for months on end because there is no move-on accommodation for them, while their peers move on after days or weeks. In future their situation will be worse because they are no longer entitled to social security benefit if they drift back to London.

I shall be interested to hear from the Minister. Perhaps he will write to me; I have not notified him of this question. What emergency measures are in place for asylum seekers who come from those new placements in the country back to London? What will happen to them? There is already great pressure on bed spaces for young people arriving in London, for instance at King's Cross. It is already difficult to place them. If they are not so placed, they are liable to become involved with sex workers and in drugs, and may become minor drug dealers. If those asylum seekers are not properly provided for and drift back, will they be trapped in the same way? Will fewer beds become available, resulting in other young people being trapped in the way I have described? These issues concern me greatly. I look forward to some response from the Minister.

2.8 p.m.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for initiating the debate. We have had the privilege of hearing from the noble Baroness, Lady Howells, who has so much experience of the subject.

This country has an old and proud tradition of welcoming immigrants seeking asylum from persecution in other countries. During the centuries, those immigrants have contributed largely to the benefit of this country. One has only to think of the Huguenots and the fact that following the Jewish emigration before and during the war the music capitals of the world shifted from Berlin and Leipzig to London. More recently, the Ugandan Asians contributed much to this country in so many ways. The House must be grateful for the shining example given by the noble Baroness, Lady Howells. However, the situation has been complicated by the arrival of economic migrants; those fleeing poverty rather than persecution. The noble Baroness was right to emphasise the difference between the two.

We on this side of the House strongly support the principle that local authorities in London and the South East should not have to bear the brunt of the costs of accommodating those seeking asylum. The present arrangements for asylum came into effect in April this year, replacing a voluntary arrangement on the part of local authorities with an obligatory one, with the option for the Home Secretary in the last resort to create dispersal areas.

It has to be said that by and large there has been a reasonable degree of co-operation between central and local government, but an objective report by the Audit Commission, issued on 1st June, highlighted some well known problems. Many of them were referred to in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. They include lack of familiarity with the problems faced by the asylum seekers and the absence of specialised help. Fewer than half the contracted immigration specialist law firms are outside London. In many cases, there is a lack of English language backup. The demand on local services on the part of asylum seekers is likely to be above average. The demands on social services, health—the noble Baroness referred to GPs—and specialised schooling deter certain authorities from offering more than the minimum co-operation. In some areas, support by the local taxpayers for asylum seekers is not at all popular.

The smaller communities outside London and the major conurbations find it more difficult to assimilate fresh minority cultures. It is significant that some of the worse racial incidents occur in the smaller communities. In some cases, that has led to an over-reaction and positive discrimination in favour of asylum seekers—a recipe for intense local tensions. Then there have undoubtedly been cases of exploitation by unscrupulous accommodation contractors. We need look no further than the examples provided by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves.

The history of the gradual drift back to London from the rest of the country has become an established fact in recent times, from the arrival of the Vietnamese boat people. That has the effect of neutralising the good intentions of the dispersal policy by putting extra strain on the London boroughs.

It should also be remembered that, until the National Asylum Support Service assumes overall responsibility nation-wide, the responsibility for immigrants dispersed elsewhere remains with the dispersing authority. Although it can expect its expenses to be recoverable ultimately from central government, Members of your Lordships' House familiar with local government will know the difficulty that delay imposes when budgets are being set.

There have been complaints in certain quarters of a lack of communication between the Immigration Service and local authorities resulting in some cases from a refusal of immigration officials to visit dispersal areas some distance from London. No doubt these instances are caused by the shortage of staffing in the Immigration Service, and this is an area where we are critical of the Government. Perhaps I may give your Lordships an instance. Under present rules, an illegal immigrant cannot be taken into custody by the police unless he or she has been seen by an immigration official, otherwise the individual must be released and told to find his way to Croydon.

In a county such as Kent, immigration officials are for most of their time engaged in searching lorries arriving from continental Europe. So they are for a large part of the time—in Kent it is 50 per cent—unavailable to validate the detention of an immigrant. In other police authorities, the Immigration Service is not available and there is a 100 per cent release rate of asylum seekers.

I note that a government-funded charity, Migrant Helpline, is at hand at the request of the police and the Immigration Service to assist migrants to prepare a written application to the Immigration Office at Croydon. Nevertheless, the opportunities for asylum seekers to become lost, if they are so inclined, beggar imagination. One is reminded of a proposal made in another quarter and the difficulties of inviting a hooligan to remember his PIN in order to withdraw cash to pay for his on-the-spot fine. We are dealing with organised crime which, as we well know, is both sophisticated and, indeed, unscrupulous, as the recent tragic events in Dover have shown.

It goes without saying that once the backlog of asylum applications is brought under control, the strain on the dispersal regime will reduce as its extent contracts. However, the Government's record in the clearing of asylum applications is not good. From the beginning of 1999 until February 2000 the figure climbed remorselessly. While the figures for March and April showed a welcome decrease, the numbers awaiting processing in February 2000 were 38 per cent higher than in January 1999. That is despite a backlog clearance exercise conducted by the Home Secretary during 1999 whereby 11,230 asylum seekers were allowed to remain in the United Kingdom because they had managed to stay for several years without their cases being heard. It is the view of this side of the House that the Government should resist the temptation to repeat this short-term expedient.

There is one category of asylum applicant which the Government are unacceptably slow to address, and that is the unaccompanied minor. These children and young persons are especially vulnerable. As a category, they are a substantial charge on the resources of local authorities. Since their ability to travel is, by their circumstances, limited, it is not surprising that one-quarter of the total is the responsibility of Kent County Council. A decision in their favour by the immigration department would at least enable the minors to be resettled away from the county.

Another strain on the manpower will arise as the Home Office deals with extra appeals arising from the requirements of the Human Rights Act when it comes into force in October. We have just approved an order which is relevant to that. It will be necessary to appoint nearly 100 full and part-time adjudicators to serve the immigration appeals tribunal.

Perhaps I may say a last word about the Immigration and Nationality Directorate. The Public Accounts Committee published a somewhat critical report on the IND's casework programme. Its principal criticisms were: the lack of quality of service; obviously, the backlog of cases to which I have referred; poor service for telephone inquiries; the human misery endured by applicants as they waited; and the cost to the taxpayer of benefits. It then went on to be critical of the implementation of the programme, the over-ambitious roll-out timetable of the new IT system, the relocation while that system was being installed, and the familiar story of lack of supervision of the contractor. I hope that the Government will address those criticisms.

Therefore, I hope that I have made clear some of the concerns that we on this side of the House have about the ability of the IND to cope with the challenge of the asylum application surge. We shall await the Minister's comments with interest.

Perhaps I may say a word about the voucher system, to which the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred. Although we appreciate the intentions behind the introduction of the system, there is no doubt that it is not perfect. For a start, there is the unwanted consequence of identifying users of the vouchers as second-class citizens. The scheme has been criticised heavily by major welfare groups, including the Refugee Council, Oxfam, and Save the Children. One effect appears to be that under the voucher system asylum seekers tend to pay more for their shopping. Forbidding retailers to give change discriminates against those who are most vulnerable. Mischievous eyes at supermarket check-outs do not miss a thing. We hope that the Government will keep the scheme under review with a view to its improvement.

We on this side of the House are well aware that a large number of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom is a fact of life. We are of course supportive of the Government in their endeavours to address the problems that it poses. However, to do so effectively and promptly, there must be an immigration infrastructure at national level which is equipped to meet the challenge. We certainly look to I improvements in this field, first, in order to speed up the process of applications and, secondly, to refine communications between the IND and local authorities and between the dispersing and receiving authorities.

Finally, there is a continuing need for the Home Office to address the particular problems of Kent and the London boroughs, on whom the burden initially falls. It is not right, for example, that homeless people in those areas should be further disadvantaged by lack of accommodation simply because of the need to lodge asylum seekers or, indeed, that taxpayers there should be required to pay a disproportionate share of what is a national obligation. I shall be very interested to hear the Minister's reply.

2.19 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I greatly welcome this opportunity to give the Government's answer to the Question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I pay tribute to him for his detailed analysis of how the dispersal arrangements for the support of asylum seekers are working and I am grateful to him for making that account available to the House. I shall study his comments very carefully. If he wants to provide me with details of particular allegations of malpractice that I, as a Minister, should follow up, I shall undertake to ensure that they are thoroughly investigated. The same offer is open to any of your Lordships who have participated in the debate. Focusing on the critical comments about the activities of any agency can only help us to improve.

I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Howells of St Davids, who highlighted some more general concerns. I shall not go into them at great length, but she spoke with great wisdom, understanding and compassion. Any government, particularly this one, would be very foolish to ignore her concerns.

I shall answer some of the points that have been raised, but first I shall set out the Government's view of how we have managed to implement the scheme to date. There is widespread agreement that the task of establishing a national asylum support scheme has been formidable. Just getting the scheme off the ground has involved an extended procurement effort to obtain accommodation, the establishment of arrangements to get asylum seekers to dispersal areas and the recruitment and training of the necessary staff to assess claims for support and allocate asylum seekers to suitable accommodation. To get all that done and administer the scheme once it was set up, we have had to create a whole new body—the National Asylum Support Service—from scratch. I hope that I am not overly complacent when I say that doing all that in just 18 months is no small achievement. The evident success of the operation says a lot about the dedication of those in management and at all levels in those organisations.

However, getting a scheme going is only half the job. The main thing is to keep it going and ensure that it achieves what it is meant to do. The Government believe that the prospects of doing that are very reasonable. So far, more than 5,000 applications for support have been dealt with. We are dispersing asylum seekers to cluster areas, as planned. There have been inevitable teething problems—the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, gave ample voice to them—in ensuring that people get to the right place at the right time and that the support packages to which they are entitled are ready for them.

As has been pointed out in the debate, we have had some problems with accommodation and some dispersed asylum seekers have not found the experience easy. We are addressing the accommodation problems. We are getting providers to take the necessary steps to achieve improvements where they are needed. We shall continue to monitor the progress made by providers of accommodation and support services.

On the positive side, the start of the dispersal scheme means that we are beginning to cap the number of asylum seekers who fall to local authorities in London and the South East, a point drawn very powerfully to our attention by the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman. Therefore, the responsibility and support for asylum seekers is more fairly shared, as we all wish it to be, across the United Kingdom. After all, that is the bedrock of dispersal arrangements like these and like those which have had to be put in place historically; for example, for groups like the Vietnamese boat people. That was a scheme which worked very well when it was introduced by the Conservative government of the time.

So far the much-criticised voucher scheme has been working, in the main, entirely satisfactorily. There are now over 19,000 retail outlets involved, including specialist shops. Our contractor, Sodexho Pass, continues to seek to extend the network of retailers. All asylum seekers receive information about the voucher scheme. Part of that information includes a form which can be used to nominate shops or other outlets which do not yet accept vouchers but where the asylum seekers would wish to shop. Sodexho Pass then does its best to sign up those retailers and add them to the network of retailers able to operate the scheme.

I shall turn now to some of the comments made during the course of the debate. I summarise the approach and perspective of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, to this matter. He drew our particular attention to problems in east Lancashire. He said that there were some unsatisfactory practices; that some asylum seekers were not receiving the right sort of help; and in particular, he drew attention to instances of intimidation and harassment. It would be fair to say that the noble Lord was extremely concerned about the secrecy, as he saw it, behind the way in which the scheme operates. In particular, he drew attention to the importance and value of that relationship between the local authority, which, after all, is the glue which brings together our communities, and the NASS scheme.

He gave us examples of people being told that information was subject to the Data Protection Act and official secrecy legislation. But he said that there is—an extremely important point—a tremendous willingness to help by a number of communities. Looking through some of the background information on this, I was pleased to find that, in particular, in one of the areas to which the noble Lord drew my attention—Burnley and Pendle—there is an asylum seekers support campaign which has organised fund-raising events. Again, the Nelson & Colne college has organised drop-in centres. We need to help and support such initiatives so that there is a community response and a greater willingness and welcome in those communities which are bearing the burden of the dispersal arrangements.

We shall of course investigate the complaints which the noble Lord has made. Like the noble Lord, I am extremely concerned about allegations of racism, racist attacks, harassment and, of course, we must keep a very careful check on the level of profits which the company providing the services in each instance is able to make. I was especially concerned about the noble Lord's comments in relation to Chapeltown and the desirability of the provision being made there. We shall look closely at that.

The disclosure of information needs to be understood. In each area, there are local authority regional consortia which are informed regularly about the numbers of asylum seekers being dispersed through the NASS scheme. Information about the identity of asylum seekers is not regularly disclosed. The Government owe a duty of confidentiality to those who have applied for asylum support. But there are instances when that can be waived, particularly where the asylum seekers themselves believe that it would be in their best interest. Of course, it can be overtaken when disclosure is in the broader public interest; for example, to prevent or to ensure that we investigate crime.

I turn to contract monitoring. NASS has a dedicated contract manager for each private sector accommodation centre provider. We are also developing an inspection and investigation team to ensure that standards are met. NASS consults local authorities through the regional consortia as to the provider's suitability. The local authorities have an important role to play there.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, drew attention to the problem of bus fares. It is the case that asylum seekers will need to pay fares out of that element of their weekly voucher payment. But I believe that we have taken adequate steps to ensure reasonable means so that asylum seekers do not become destitute. We have to strike a balance. The mix of voucher and cash payment attempts to do that.

I turn to the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howells. In essence, to summarise her concerns, she was worried about the dispersal and support arrangements of the local authorities. It is fair to say that local authorities have had to bear the brunt of the burden. That is one of the reasons which informed the development of NASS. We were concerned, under the previous arrangements, at the over-concentration of asylum seekers, particularly in London and the South East. It would be fair to say that in some cases they placed excessive burdens on the capacity of the local authorities to cope, some of which are not exactly overburdened with riches. We have to turn our attention to their needs. That is why we need a rational system of national dispersal.

The noble Baroness also drew attention to the need to ensure that measures are taken which guarantee that asylum seekers are "plugged into" GP services. She was right to draw attention to the need for healthcare for the asylum population. In particular, the noble Baroness drew attention to the missing 400 education places in Kent last year. We are concerned about that. Clearly, we must do all that we can to ensure that education is available for those who will be here for any length of time while their asylum application is being considered. To that end, the DfEE is making available an additional £1.5 million of funding for schools which take children of asylum seekers. They are obviously in clusters under the national asylum support scheme. We recognise the value and importance of tackling that head on.

We shall, of course, do all that we can to ensure that adequate steps are taken to integrate asylum communities into local areas, particularly if we know that they will be there for any length of time.

The noble Baroness was absolutely right to draw attention to the valuable contribution which people coming to this country—often destitute and fleeing persecution—make to our society and communities. That point was echoed by the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman. We must never underestimate the contribution, richness and diversity they bring to us. However, that does not mean that we must step aside from our duty to ensure that we exercise our international obligations properly and fairly and that we take adequate and strong measures to ensure that immigration legislation is firmly and effectively introduced.

Our Government inherited a chaotic system of control. We have had to take some time to put a new system in place. However, I believe that we now have the balance right. At times, we are criticised for being somewhat illiberal in the measures we have taken. I prefer to view our approach to this rather differently. We have firm and fair procedures in place and are now making far more decisions about people's immigration status and their entitlement to stay here. I think that we are getting the balance about right.

Over the past few months, a record number of decisions have been made. The number of people awaiting a decision about their status is lowering each month. We expect the backlog to fall dramatically by the end of the year. Perhaps I may pass on an important statistic. Since the end of January, the backlog has reduced by some 15,000. We expect to make a substantial reduction in that backlog by April 2001.

I hope that I have been able to allay some of the concerns expressed in this debate. I reiterate that the Government believe that implementation of the scheme has generally got off to a satisfactory start. But, as in any of these sorts of undertaking, there is always room for improvement. We accept that. The successful implementation of the national support scheme means that we shall, over time and with the co-operation of the private sector and local authorities, achieve our aim of providing an adequate support system for asylum seekers in genuine need throughout the country, while deterring economic migrants seeking to use asylum procedures to gain entry into the United Kingdom and stay here.

That is our general philosophy and approach. If I have missed specific points during my summary of the debate, I apologise and shall be happy to address them in private correspondence later. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for giving us this opportunity to air concerns and issues arising from the introduction of the national asylum seekers scheme.

House adjourned at twenty-four minutes before three o'clock.